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Interim budget watchdog says court ruling underscores PBO’s legal power

Treasury Board president Tony Clement speaks to reporters in Ottawa on Monday, April 22, 2013 after announcing a new online tool for accessing and analyzing government spending.

Justin Tang/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Interim Parliamentary Budget Officer Sonia L'Heureux is claiming victory following this week's Federal Court ruling , which she says paves the way for departments to hand over information on spending cuts that the PBO has been requesting.

In a statement Tuesday, Ms. L'Heureux – who heads the Library of Parliament and is leading the PBO on an interim basis until a permanent budget officer is found – said she is pleased with Monday's court decision.

The budget office had asked the court to rule on whether it had the power to order departments to hand over spending information on behalf of a request from NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair.

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Federal Court Justice Sean Harrington chose not to rule on procedural grounds, claiming that the question was "hypothetical" because the PBO had not specifically asked departments for the information on behalf of Mr. Mulcair. (The PBO had made several similar requests on its own behalf. Some departments responded and others did not.)

Still, the ruling does appear to support the PBO's argument that backbench MPs, through the PBO, do have the power under the law to obtain such information.

"In light of the Court's decision, the PBO intends to request the information required in order to respond to the request from Mr. Thomas Mulcair," said Ms. L'Heureux in a statement. "We expect that the requested information will be duly provided by the government departments and agencies. If a dispute arises, the Court has said it will be available to assist with its resolution."

Ms. L'Heureux's decision is noteworthy because her approach to the court case had been the subject of extensive speculation in Ottawa. Kevin Page, the first and former Parliamentary Budget Officer, had expressed concern at the government's decision to appoint Ms. L'Heureux as interim PBO because she did not have a background in fiscal analysis.

The decision to appoint Ms. L'Heureux on an interim basis rather than to extend Mr. Page's term until a replacement was found led to concern among the opposition that she might not pursue the PBO's court battle with federal departments.

Senior ministers, including Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Treasury Board President Tony Clement, have refused to provide spending information to the PBO on the grounds that Mr. Page was going beyond his mandate.

In Monday's ruling, the court said the Conservative government's 2006 Accountability Act – which created the PBO – gives the PBO clear legal powers.

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"Parliament not only intended that the Parliamentary Budget Officer be answerable to it and to its committees, but also to every backbencher irrespective of political stripe. In my view, the purpose of the statute is to shield any given member of either House of Parliament from the will of the majority," the ruling states. "If the majority wants to abolish the position of the Parliamentary Budget Officer, or define his or her mandate somewhat differently, so be it! However, it must do so by legislation. Having made that law by statute, it must unmake it by statute. In the meantime, Parliament has no right to ignore its own legislation."

The ruling appears to have no impact on the tone from Mr. Clement, the Treasury Board President.

"Thomas Mulcair has used the Federal Courts and Parliamentary Budget Office to pull a shameless political stunt," reads a statement provided by Mr. Clement's spokesperson. "The Federal Court has thrown this case out, recognizing it as being 'hypothetical' and existing in a 'factual vacuum.'"

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